They jump and twirl and skip, run around in intricately patterned steps, and shake all over in perfect rhythm. A two-hundred piece orchestra plays in minor augment keys and there are a dozen tympanis banging out a syncopated and complex code of a phony jungle beat. All the dancers have matching costumes and the females barely have any. It’s a wild pagan dance to the Great God Hiccup and the pith-helmeted explorers are tied to a handy clump of palm trees with a giant cooking pot bubbling away only a yard or two from them! Wow, it sure is exciting being a pagan in the 1960 Hollywood films, isn’t it?
Or there’s the 1970’s version: Heavily hooded devotees stand like statues in the torch-lit underground lair of the insanely cruel master or mistress of the super-secret cult. They mispronounce the badly written Latin phrases in perfect unison while the damsel in distress (the same one that was the object of the search by the pith helmeted guys in the previous movie) is stripped down to the few tatters of cloth necessary to appease the censors and stretched out on a cold stone slab that must have taken a hundred years to smooth down and carve into that shape. She screams helplessly but doesn’t try to run as the High Poobah hovers over her with a ridiculously fashioned (but really wicked looking) knife, about to plunge it into her heart for the glory of…
… wait for it…
The Great God Up-Chuck (they used to call him Up-Charles, but the British objected).
Gee, don’t you wish you lived back in those times? They just don’t throw parties like those anymore, do they? Hmmm, maybe it’s a budget problem. But here we are, trying our best to show some kind of worship for our gods and usually it’s a quick chant and maybe a circle dance. Is that what it’s all about?
Not even a little bit.
Our worship services may be a little less grandiose than Hollywood’s, but they are surely a lot more authentic. Somehow I doubt that the outfits that are a cross between central Africa, ancient Egypt, and somewhere in Polynesia were ever used in real life. And as any who have had to lead a chant in a real Pagan circle knows, getting it in time, in tune, and pronounced right is nearly impossible. And forget Latin! Maybe we don’t put on the most grandly costumed or fantastically choreographed production, but our worship has nothing to do with any of that anyway.
In its simplest form, worship is all about desire. We desire to get closer to our gods and to put ourselves in greater harmony with the universe. We desire to understand the way of things and the processes behind the amazing events we discover in a thousand different ways. We desire the blessings that are part of being alive. We desire the peace and the love that we know is part of how we are created. We desire to make ourselves better and to know what that means. But, most of all, we desire our world to be inhabited by the goodness that our deities are.
After the circle is done, after the chants have faded away and we’ve hugged everyone who’s shared our small gathering, what’s next? Are we to go our way and return in a month for more of the same, leading our lives as if the circle is the only place for our worship? Indeed, not. And any who do miss the most important aspect of our worship. It is not a slam-bam thing with us; it’s all the time. If worship is a way to express our desires, it drives our actions in every part of our lives. And because those desires have to do with Deity and our relationship to it, they will never be completely satiated while we are in this incarnated form. They will continue throughout our life and, who knows, maybe beyond. It’s no exaggeration to say our lives are the real worship we give to our gods. Nothing defines what we worship better than how we conduct our lives… the everyday decisions we make and what they declare about what we desire.
A worship service isn’t a bunch of mechanical events – stand up, say this, sing this, do that, sit down – it’s just what is says it is: a service conducted to help everyone discover their own relationship with the Divine and how they can shape their desire to enhance that relationship. The folks who are privileged with the task of presenting a ritual or a ceremony of some kind that serves the people in this way must always keep in mind that the people are the target of their rituals and ceremonies. The gods don’t need our worship; we need to worship our gods. Our rituals are nothing more than an efficient way for learning what we need to know to expand our day-to-day worship. Also, they often deepen our desire to conduct our lives in greater harmony with our gods.
There exists a great variety of methods to increase our desire for a closer relationship with our gods and to facilitate that relationship in some manner. They are known as sacraments. All religions use them in various ways. Mostly, they fall into only a few categories:
- The ‘feel good’ sacraments. These produce or recall events that feel good and show how these feelings relate to presence of the Divine.
- Most often, these appear as ‘holy days’ or celebrations of notable events that highlight what is generally agreed to be good, heroic, or saintly. Celebrations like revivals fall into this category.
- The ‘feel bad’ sacraments. These produce or recall events that feel bad and show how these feelings relate to the lack or absence of the Divine.
- Probably the most glaring of events in this category are the ‘hell-and-brimstone’ type of ceremonies. They are characterized by a good deal of condemnation by religious leaders directed at those who don’t measure up to the standards set by that religion. Blame for everything perceived as wrong in the world is put on those who don’t support these standards.
- These first two are usually used together, often called ‘the stick and the carrot’ approach.
- The ‘mystery’ sacraments. These produce or recall events that present an opportunity to discover aspects of the Divine and our personal relationship to it.
- Each person will find something different but what they discover will be more meaningful to them. This sacrament, when presented in a way that reminds the person that Deity is at the core of the experience, is very personal and powerful.
- This is sometimes called the Gnostic method and is not favored by revealed religions.
- Many shamanistic practices also fall into this category.
- The sacraments of change. These are sacraments that show how the changes that happen in our lives are part of a greater pattern in the cosmos and that those greater changes are the work of the gods.
- Many of these sacraments are also called Rites of Passage and Pagans will recognize initiations as belonging to this group. Also included here would be birth and death rites, birthdays, and marriages.
To conduct the sacraments, that is to provide opportunities to enhance and perpetuate our desire for greater harmony with our gods, those whose job it is to dispense these sacraments need to understand the people who will participate in them. In fact, the greater this understanding, the more effective the sacrament will be for each person. This understanding must go beyond a general knowledge of people. A common set of values is favorable for mass sacramental ceremonies. If everybody has a similar concept of Deity, more of the people attending the sacrament will be able to get something positive out of it.
A common set of values, a shared concept of Deity, and similar enough understanding of the iconic symbology used during the sacraments are all factors that increase the likelihood of the sacrament’s effectiveness. This is why the sacraments of one religion are, at least on the surface, very dissimilar to those of another religion. People who identify with one religion will probably not get nearly the ‘punch’ out of a sacrament presented for people of another religion.
Since all sacraments are meant to engage people, there are a lot of similarities that may be hidden underneath the surface of the sacraments of different religions, though. And the value systems promulgated by one group can often be seen in those of another, especially if one is willing to go a little deeper than just the surface appearances. Unfortunately, all too often, people are so locked into their own way of seeing things, they reject even minor differences in the way other people may express feelings and values that are nearly identical.
What we worship and the manner in which we do it can be easily misinterpreted by outsiders when that worship is under formal conditions, such as during a religious service. But if we intentionally carry our worship outside the circle, if we proclaim our values and desires through our own lives, it is likely that others who are not of our religious persuasion will see their own values and desires as being in common with ours. Most often, what is good and righteous to one person is so to others regardless of how either might portray them in liturgy and ceremony. Though I have been Wiccan for many years, I still find it wonderful when a devout Christian tells me that they believe I’ve behaved like ‘a good Christian.’ I could bristle at such a statement, but I prefer to accept it as intended: a compliment. I would also like to be thought of as a good Buddhist, a good Jew, and a good son of Allah. For ultimately, we all desire the same thing: to be seen as good human beings in the eyes of the gods.
I am the living alter,
the willing sacrifice.
My words are the bond
between my soul and my deeds.
I am the child of the gods,
as are all whom I am blessed to meet.
I am related to all of my brethren
and every creation in the universe.
I am a part of all spirit,
a piece of the great miracle.
I worship the miracle and every part thereof,
for we are all made from love.